Child welfare needs to be at the heart of our Government

To get action to improve incomes and housing for families to provide for their children, we need Government agreement – and that’s hard to get in the current environment.

A highlight of my work as an advocate for children is working with fascinating people all around the country who are determined to make Aotearoa New Zealand a great place for all children. Of course, most children here do well and have wonderful childhoods. But for a range of reasons we have significant groups of children who do a lot less well. The differences in the health, education and wellbeing education of these children are severe, for example, Pasifika children are 60 times more likely, and Māori children 20 times more likely to get rheumatic fever.

In every Government department, parliamentary office, political party, business, city council, NGO, community, Iwi, church, and family I talk with, I find people genuinely interested in how we create a society where every child thrives. The primary issues of poverty, housing, and family violence are central to the discussions.  The facts are that 148,000 children are missing out on the basics they need to be healthy; growing numbers of families are homeless, living in squalor, or spending 50-70 percent of their incomes on rent; and violence in families makes New Zealand one of the worst countries in the OECD for child abuse.

Everyone knows that these are big issues requiring a comprehensive response. But in the midst of the massive social and economic change of the past 30 years, we have lost sight of the role of Government when it comes to the wellbeing of families. And this means that all of those people so keen to ensure that children do well, have very different ideas about what needs to happen.

Running through all of the debate is whether or not we can, and should, move beyond the predominant political ideology of the past 30 years: the neo-liberal belief in small Government, individual responsibility and a free market.

I believe it is time to define what modern, inclusive Government looks like. But before I get into those arguments, there are two ways that we can immediately shift the debate beyond the old political divides: the first is making the child rights case and the second is being guided by children’s own voices and ideas.

Children have rights to the highest attainable standard of health, a standard of living adequate to ensure their physical and mental development, and an education that develops a broad set of skills to enable full participation.  Whatever your political leaning, you don't have to look far to see that Government is breaching the rights of far too many children.

And if you ask children, they say that Government and community have a role to play in supporting their parents, they want food in schools and adequate family incomes. It would be great for the Government to hear the voices of our children and take action on them.

The fact is, there is overwhelming evidence that Government policy has the single biggest impact on child poverty rates: just look at the negative impact of benefit cuts and the Employment Contracts Act in the early 1990s, and again at the positive impact of Working For Families from 2004.

Despite this evidence, all of the good advice given to the Government about how to solve child poverty, and the Prime Minister’s promise to prioritise child poverty in this term of Parliament, the Government resists the idea that it could significantly improve children’s living standards and lift families out of poverty by increasing Working for Families tax credits.  

This is partly because of Government’s 'relentless focus on work' and a belief that keeping things tough for beneficiaries will incentivise them into work. But it’s also because of the obsession with targeting just those families that fit a very tight set of criteria, with as little Government investment as they can get away with, and still look like a compassionate, pragmatic Government.

Relying on work to solve the problem is faulty logic when so much work is low paid and unstable, with no guarantee that it will enable people out of poverty in the medium term. 37 percent of the children in poverty are in working homes. And the targeted social investment approach will be costly compared with a more universal approach to increasing incomes, to enable families to get on with the job of meeting their children’s needs.

Of course there is a need for specialised, targeted support for some families but for the majority, a decent increase in income would solve many problems and protect against vulnerability.

Given the urgency of the issues facing so many of our families, we really need to get past political ideologies that prevent immediate action to provide income, housing and support that enables parents to do well for their children. That’s why New Zealand needs to have a bigger conversation about what modern Government looks like if we want children to thrive, and how we create a democracy that works for us all.

Without it, lack of consensus about what Government is responsible for will mean continued blaming of parents and confusion about what businesses, Iwi, NGOs, and communities should be doing.

To some extent, the Government is counting on public disinterest and inertia – which is why the Child Poverty Action Group, UNICEF NZ, and dozens of other organisations are working together to drive public discussion and raise awareness. Public policy will eventually follow public sentiment so we have to make it impossible for Governments to ignore the calls for practical, evidence-based, solutions like fixing Working for Families.

And in so doing we should be bold about talking about the human rights case and ensuring that children’s voices inform the debate. 

This month, CPAG has started a campaign to Fix Working for Families. Find out about its goals and how you can help here

Deborah is the National Advocacy Manager at UNICEF NZDeborah has previously worked in advocacy management roles for Every Child Counts, Barnardos NZ, and Plunket. Deborah was also a former MP from 1996 to 1999.